The art of creating exquisite fragrance has existed for centuries, and perhaps the oldest is a precious aromatic treasure known as attar or ittar. This classical Indian perfume, traditionally distilled into a base of Sandalwood oil (Santalum album), has been used for thousands of years. It has been used in ceremony and ritual, prayer, to attract blessings and good fortune, and for therapeutic benefit.
The history of attars began in North Central India, near the border of Nepal in Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, where they are still produced. The process takes place on farms where plant matter is harvested to ensure maximum freshness, it is extremely labor intensive and uses a lot of plant material, which is what makes attars so precious.
The distillation process begins in a large copper pot known as a deg. Plant matter is filled to the top of the deg, covered with water, and sealed with a mud ‘snake’. Fueled by fire, the steam rises and is funneled into a cooling bath. The fragrant hydrosol is collected in a vessel where it is mixed with Sandalwood (Santalum album), allowed to sit, and the Sandalwood (Santalum album) rises to the top. The process is repeated the next day with the same Sandalwood. It can take weeks and weeks with this same Sandalwood infused over and over with repeated distillations of the hydrosol. Once this process is complete, aging then takes place in a leather container which allows any water to evaporate out and molecules to meld entirely with the Sandalwood.
A traditional Sandalwood attar has become rarer due to the lack of sustainability of the Santalum album species. This oil is found in the heartwood and roots of the dead trees. It grows slowly, is parasitic with other trees and plants, and has complex growing needs. This creates a need to use different species such as Australian Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) which is easier to grow. Santalum spicatum is therapeutically similar to Santalum album; however, there are certain drug interaction precautions with its use. Attars are also being made using other plant material as a base, such as Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides), which is also calming to the nervous system and very safe.
Attars are not merely a perfume, but very valuable therapeutically as well. When used on the skin, they absorb and become part of the body chemistry, and the Sandalwood base provides subtle but essential effects. With low risk for dermal irritation, it is soothing, and anti-inflammatory for the skin settles the emotions and clears the mind. Its spiritual qualities make it especially beneficial for meditation and spiritual evolution. Additional benefits can be derived from the other botanicals in the attar as well.
Here are a few of the traditional varieties of Attars:
Jasmine Absolute (Jasminum grandiflorum and Jasminum sambac) – Provides a warm, exotic scent to a blend. Both of these species are therapeutically interchangeable and promote feelings of optimism, confidence, and are relaxing to the nervous system. Considered an aphrodisiac, it is also nourishing for the skin and can help with labor. (Stimulating, best used four hours before sleeping.)
Essential Oil of Rose (Rosa damascena) – Floral and sweet, Rose is traditionally associated with Venus, the Goddess of love and beauty. This oil is excellent for opening the heart and a wide variety of complaints including; digestive and menstrual issues, poor circulation, assist in reducing nervous tension and stress, insomnia, frigidity, and headaches. Encourages feelings of well-being and is an excellent choice during times of grief. Very good for the skin, especially mature skin. (This is a strong concentration, and the recommended dilution for dermal applications is 0.6%.)
Lotus Absolute (Nelumbo nucifera) – The Lotus flower has a deep ritual meaning to Hindus, to whom the flower symbolizes beauty, purity, and divinity. Good for the immune system, sensitive and mature skin, anxiety, fear, helps relieve nervous tension and stress and is considered an aphrodisiac.
Champa Absolute (Michelia champaca) – A large, very fragrant flower popular in garlands and temple offerings. Excellent for skin care, anxiety, fear, grief, insomnia, tension headaches and stress. Champa adds a fresh, lightly floral note to the blend. (Not for use during pregnancy or nursing.)
Tuberose Absolute (Polianthes tuberosa) – From the lily family, this flower has a sophisticated, exotic, sweet floral scent. Because it has a narcotic effect, it is advised to use in small doses. It is exceptional for use with persons experiencing shock, trauma, or those having difficulty coping with life. (Maybe skin sensitizing, also caution in using with young children.)
Saffron Essential Oil (Crocus sativus) – Used in ancient attars, the extraction process for this oil is very labor intensive and is thus very expensive. This highly prized oil adds a woody, spicy, hay-like scent and has anti-spasmodic and uplifting properties. (Maybe skin sensitizing, also caution in using with young children.)
Attars can be applied to the writ pulse points, neck, and heart center as a fragrance all day long. They can also be used on the acupressure points and in massage for specific influence on the tissues and systemic effects.
For a relaxing massage blend, place 12 drops of Rose/Australian Sandalwood attar into a 2-oz. glass container. Fill with Organic Sesame Oil and shake to combine. In addition to providing relaxation, this blend will provide many additional benefits and is excellent for the skin.
Because the making of attars is very labor intensive and requires a lot of plant material, unfortunately, they are also frequently adulterated. Many attars currently on the market are not therapeutic but are synthetic and not safe for direct application to the skin. When purchasing an attar, great care and research must be done to ensure its quality and therapeutic value.
~ Floracopeia is one supplier that we use for these exquisite oils. ~
Tisserand, Robert and Young, Rodney, Essential Oil Safety, Second Edition, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2014, p. 245, 311-313, 404-405, 412
Lawless, Julia, The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, Conari Press, San Francisco, CA, 1992, 2013, p. 72-73, 115-116, 128-129, 172-173, 194
Aroma Apothecary Healing Arts Academy © Five Element Aromatherapy Text, 2017, p. 11-12
Aroma Apothecary Healing Arts Academy © Clinical Aromatherapy Level 2- Module E, 2011, p. 5-6